Imagine the dating game contestants 50,000 years ago

Someone on a thread I saw about humans and Neanderthals swapping genes brought up the question of attractiveness. I think that’s largely a cultural factor. (Victorian great beauties might be considered much too fat and short to be considered outstandingly attractive by Western, early-twenty-first century standards of feminine beauty), but it does raise the interesting question of just what did modern humans and Neanderthals look like when they first ran into each other and got friendly? Let’s think about that.

In Eurasia, over the hundreds of thousands of years since the common ancestors of Neanderthals and modern humans parted company, Neanderthals had evolved adaptations to living in places where it was cold and cloudy a great deal of the time: stocky body type (if your torso is shaped more like a sphere you can hold on to more of your body heat). Also, if you’re living in a place like that, having fair skin is a selective advantage because it makes it much easier to make vitamin D. The recovered Neanderthal genes suggest that at least some of them were redheads. Take a look at this:

Based on the type of heavy spearheads Neanderthals used, the types of animal bones that have turned up associated with their camps, and some interesting observations from doctors that the injuries that have turned up among Neanderthal skeletons are similar to the kinds of injuries you see in rodeo performers, they seem to have gone in for sneaking up on large, powerful, dangerous animals, jumping on them with spears, and killing them at close range.

These people had very rugged physiques. I suspect that if somebody were to clone a Neanderthal female (huge ethical problems) she could probably play high school football without difficulty, although the delicate modern human males on the other team would probably complain that she was too tough and strong and hurt them. If someone cloned whole female Neanderthal football teams, the dainty modern human jocks might have to give up being players and become cheerleaders.

(As long as we are running with that, try to imagine the scene where the captain of the football team shows up at the door to take the head cheerleader to the prom. No, maybe you’d better not.)

Anyway, by contrast, modern humans evolved in Africa under dry, hot conditions where they had to cope with a lot of intense sunlight. In an environment like that, there would be selection pressures in favor of being more vertical than horizontal because the more your torso is shaped like a stick the easier it is to shed excess body heat so you don’t die of heatstroke. Also, darker skin is a selective advantage because it gives you more protection against sunburn.

Based on their stonework, modern humans of that era seem to have gone in for weapons you could use to kill prey at a safe distance. One of the advantages of that kind of hunting is that you don’t need to be as heavily muscled as you need to be if you must frequently wrestle your dinner. It takes a lot of calories to maintain a heavily muscled physique. When food was scarce, being able to get by on much less food would have given modern humans a decided advantage.

According to some stuff I’ve seen from the National Geographic genome project, the San People of Southern Africa are probably the oldest surviving group that looks more or less like the modern humans who started migrating out of Africa roughly 50,000 years ago and running into Neanderthals. Below is a link to a video showing contemporary San people living much as their (and our) remote modern human ancestors did:


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